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article imageOp-Ed: Pics vs. memories? Does taking a pic interfere with memory?

By Paul Wallis     Dec 10, 2013 in Lifestyle
Sydney - It’s a sort of folklore that digital media are “portable memories”. Some major questions are now arising whether visual media in particular are actually blocking memories, and reducing memory quality.
This is a very tricky subject, and interpretations are covering a wide spread.
The latest issue focuses on interactions with memory:
Sydney Morning Herald:
A study has shown that taking pictures rather than concentrating fully on the events in front of us prevents memories from taking hold.
Dr Linda Henkel, from Fairfield University in Connecticut, described it as the "photo-taking impairment effect".
"People so often whip out their cameras almost mindlessly to capture a moment, to the point that they are missing what is happening right in front of them," she said.
"When people rely on technology to remember for them - counting on the camera to record the event and thus not needing to attend to it fully themselves - it can have a negative impact on how well they remember their experiences."
The study tested students and found that memory of the objects they photographed was less accurate than memory of the objects which the subjects they simply looked at.
That’s pretty much it. The theory, and it’s backed up elsewhere, is that the photographic process interferes with direct perception, which creates core memories. The implication is that the photo-taking process acts as a barrier.
(May also have something to do with the fact that pictures do have that status as default memories, which is why they’re taken in the first place?)
If you think about vivid memories for a moment, particularly childhood memories, you’ll probably agree that the quality of the memories is very good. You can remember everything, very accurately.
After a little bit of digging, I discovered an article from a very appropriate source. Joshua Sarinana is a photo buff. He’s also a neuroscientist at MIT studying “the genetic basis of memory and learning.” He’s no mere adherent of photographic memories of any kind, however. He’s been studying the values of imagery for people with damaged hippocampi. (The hippocampus is the prima facie memory store.)
Microsoft developed a wearable camera, which they call the SenseCam. This camera passively takes photos throughout the day. In this study, participant with hippocampal damage reviewed all the photos taken during their day. The level of recall in individuals with the SenseCam was then compared to memory recall of events without the SenseCam or to events that were written in a diary.
Participants with a SenseCam had greater levels of recall when compared to no SenseCam and when compared to only having a written diary. What is interesting about the findings is that it suggests that visual memory of events is stored outside the hippocampus, but only after studying photographs.
It may be the case that studying photos of life events helps bypass the hippocampus and undergo processing in a different brain region or regions.
(Note: Please read the entire article, not just this excerpt. Sarinana explains in some detail the issues of memory.)
The theory of external storage of visual memories “outside” may also relate to a functional processing issue.
There is, also interestingly, a logical issue here-
Taking a picture is itself a memory-based task.
Pictures are records, “solid” memories, easily available.
If you have a “default” memory available, how hard are you going to try to remember what you’re seeing?
Is the memory task “delegated” to taking the pictures
If you have made a shopping list, do you bother to remember everything on it?
No, because your list is supposed to be doing that. The memory function is taken over by the list, for functional reasons.
Many people would say that the airhead factor is also in play and that many people don’t remember things because they have nothing to remember them with. Photos replace a memory full of holes. That’s not quite the case. Memory performance is highly variable, basically using bandwidths as a norm. You’re expected to remember your name, but not necessarily that blade of grass you were looking at for a quarter of a second in 1972.
Your brain may decide it has better things to do than laboriously recount every detail of every event. It may also decide to remind you of something out of thin air for no obvious reason but some sort of association you’ve made mentally.
Pictures can be assets. There’s no doubt about that. Actual memories in the strictly top quality class, they’re not. They’re “partial memories”, shopping lists, taken for various reasons. Motivation has a lot to do with the value of pics. Some pics are priceless, others you wonder why you bothered taking them.
Photos do have values, depending on subject, relative emotional input, and “imponderables”.
They may not be “total” memories, but how many would you actually throw out?
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about photos and memory, Microsoft SensCam, Joshua Sarinana, Mit, Dr Linda Henkel
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